First of a Series of Reports On Climate Outreach to Various Faith Groups

Interfaith National Campaigns Manager Andree Duggan says initial commitments to participate have come, in order of number, from Episcopalian, Unitarian, Catholic, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Quaker, Jewish, Baptist, Buddhist, Disciples of Christ, Mennonite, Bahá’is, and some Muslim congregations. Muslims and Evangelicals apparently are the most resistant to seeing climate change as a religious issue or one worthy of their concern.

No two climate change messages to different religious groups will necessarily be alike, of course, and the Interfaith organization and other coalitions of religious interests such as the National Religious Partnership for the Environment offer resources and guidelines for tailoring climate change sermons to specific religious groups.

Themes Appealing Across Religious Denominations

At the same time, The Reverend Sally Bingham of Interfaith emphasizes that all major religions share several common principles which on their own pretty much compel attention to the climate issue.

“All major religions have a mandate to care for God’s Creation,” the organization says, adding that global warming “is compromising our future,” making it an “urgent moral crisis.”

“All people of faith share a moral obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable,” Interfaith says in explaining climate change as a faith issue. “These are the people who are least able to adapt and who are most affected by the climate crisis. We must not turn our backs on the poorest or on future generations.”

Emphasizing that “the world’s scientists agree” that Earth’s atmosphere is warming in substantial part because of human activities, Bingham says in a video presentation that global warming is “the greatest moral issue of our time.” She points to Mark 12:28 — “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Yourself” — and says people of faith therefore would not pollute or foul their neighbors’ properties. She defines neighbors to include future generations.

“Everything we do as human beings today has an effect on someone else. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we are called to love our neighbors, love God and love our neighbors …. You won’t pollute your neighbor’s air or water. And if we think of neighbors as the next generation, we have to think about how our behavior is going to affect the people who come after us. And it’s kind of sad to think that we may care more about ourselves than we do about our children, and sometimes we behave that way.”

Interpreting words like “stewardship,” “Creation,” and “dominion” to mean “exploit and use for our purposes, and not think about how our use affects the future” is counter to religious convictions, Bingham says. Under such interpretations, “We are not doing what God called us to do. Dominion means stewardship, care for, love for … the same kind of dominion that God has over us.”

Religious Tenets ‘Compelling’ Action on Climate

In that same Interfaith video, Rabbi Melanie Aron, of Congregation Shir Hadash, in Los Gatos, Ca., equates a do-nothing approach to climate change to a person’s sitting by a pool and reading while a child in sight is drowning. “You would be seriously condemned,” she says, “but today, many of us are standing idly by while the lives of the children of the future are being seriously threatened.”

Taking seriously the interests of families and future generations — “the whole family, our global family, from generation to generation” — will compel faith interests to act to “reduce our footprint on God’s Earth,” she says. (The Interfaith DVD also includes brief Buddhist, Catholic, and Muslim sermons.)

That verb “compel” comes up also in discussions with Matthew Anderson, executive director of a separate interfaith group, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which is also targeting climate change as its priority issue.

“Many of us share a deep conviction that global climate change presents an unprecedented threat to the integrity of life on Earth and a challenge to universal values that bind us as human beings,” his organization says on its website. It points to “a broad consensus on causes and potential consequences” among “highly regarded institutions in the international scientific community.”

“When ‘discernable human influence’ is determined to be a cause of destruction, we are dealing with moral and ethical concerns as well as scientific and policy issues. For many, these are shaped by religious conviction.”

“Love of God, and God’s love of us,” Anderson said, leads to “our call to care for our neighbor and the whole of God’s gracious gift of Creation.” Those considerations “compel us to respond to climate change,”  he said in a phone interview, “and to be good stewards of Creation.”

Science/Religious Differences Bridged by Common Values

NRPE acknowledges on its site frequent differences between religion and science, but says “stewardship, justice, protection of the weak, inter-generational duty, and prudence are universal values when responsible scientific study has identified grave risk.”

Anderson said he regrets that climate change “is often portrayed as a scientific or political debate.” Instead, he and the NRPE members see it as “a fact of life,” and one requiring moral and ethical responses. That “compels us to respond to climate change,” Anderson said.

What is most needed at this point? NRPE on its website offers this answer: “Moral vision and leadership. Resources of human character and spirit — love of life, far-sightedness, solidarity — are needed to awaken a sufficient sense of urgency and resolve.”

‘Skeptics’ Also Targeting Faith Groups

Organizations and interests deeply concerned about climate change and its impacts are not the only ones reaching out to faith groups. A distinctly different take comes from the climate-contrarian Cornwall Alliance, headquartered in Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C.

Using some of the same wording, biblical passages, and emotional tugs — the future of our children, concern for the poor, equity — this group reaches radically different conclusions. It holds, for instance, that “Earth and its ecosystems — created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence — are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.”

“We deny that carbon dioxide — essential to all plant growth — is a pollutant,” the group says, maintaining that efforts to control CO2 emissions would cost far more than the benefits might justify. Warning of what it calls “one of the greatest deceptions of our day,” the group speaks darkly of a need for “resisting the green dragon.”

A series of Yale Forum reports over the next several months will explore climate change outreach and communication efforts aimed to appeal to individual religious groups in their churches, temples, mosques, and other places of religious services.